Purity culture is pervasive across the church. It is most starkly seen in fundamentalist church cultures. Yet even in many progressive Christian communities, there are implicit messages reinforcing purity culture. Below are just some of the lies purity culture teaches women and girls that we as the church must work to undo.
1. Women are responsible for men’s sexual sin.
Purity culture claims that women’s bodies and clothing can cause men to “stumble” with lust. Rather than placing the responsibility for sexual thoughts or actions on the man or boy who enacts them, purity culture places the responsibility on the woman or girl being looked at and lusted after. It’s almost as if Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, go and tell the thing you’re looking at to stop looking that way in front of your eye.”
2. Women’s bodies are something to be ashamed of.
If women’s bodies are blamed for lust—if the church claims that they need to be covered up for the sake of men—this inevitably leads to shame. Rather than celebrating the many wonderful things about the physical shapes God has given them, women and girls are encouraged to see their bodies solely as possible temptations to men.
3. Women shouldn’t have sexual desire.
Purity culture sometimes implicitly and other times explicitly states that the reason men’s sexuality is women’s responsibility is that their “lady brains” are so different that they don’t really have a sexuality, and don’t want to have sex. Unlike men, apparently, who think about sex every three seconds, women are non-sexual. It’s just science. God made men unable to control their sex drive or sexual desire, leaving it up to women to take responsibility.
However, most Christians who perpetuate this view also contradict it with the belief that women are more easily deceived, and therefore men should actually be in charge. Yes, those same men who, according to this ideology, evidently aren’t even in charge of their own sexuality!
4. Your virginity is the only thing of worth about you.
For girls and women who are not married, purity culture insists that their value is based on their virginity. They are taught that having sex makes them like a screwed up piece of paper, a chewed piece of gum, or a jar that loads of people have spat into. Teaching of their inherent value as human beings made in God’s image is superseded, if not totally obliterated, by messages to young women that they will become utterly worthless if they have sex.
5. Women don’t enjoy sex as much as men.
Okay, purity culture doesn’t deny biology, or at least the majority of Christians don’t, but it does insist that sex is something men enjoy and women tolerate. The fact that God created women with an organ that has no other purpose than to provide orgasms is never mentioned. Across the wider population, fifty percent of women cannot accurately label a vagina, so this is a wider issue. But for Christian women, purity culture’s silence on and discouragement of women understanding their own bodies leads to a situation where the clitoris (and it’s implication for mutual enjoyment in marital sex) simply doesn’t exist.
6. If women have sex before marriage, everything will go wrong.
Purity culture makes it clear that if women or girls have sex before marriage, absolutely everything that can go wrong will. The only solution offered is to become “re-virginised” and even then, girls and women are still seen as (and often feel like) damaged goods. The way purity culture portrays sex before marriage leaves women and girls fearful of sex. Further, many Christian women also assume that their lives are hopeless if they engaged in sexual activity before marriage.
7. There’s no difference between sexual abuse and sex before marriage.
Purity culture doesn’t talk about consent. It deals in the right/wrong dichotomy of pre and post-marital sex. Sadly, this leaves many women and girls assuming that the pain and hurt they experience when men/boys sexually abuse them is about having pre-marital sex. At seventeen, when my boyfriend pressured, manipulated, and coerced me into sexual activity, I was convinced this was the normal feeling of failing to honor God with my purity. When he caused me physical pain, humiliated me, and degraded me, I thought my responses were about my failures, not about his choice to abuse and exploit me.
The irony is that purity culture is anything but pure. It is woven with oppression and lies. It is yet another weapon of patriarchy to control and marginalize women. I believe that the church will continue to breed shame, sexual dysfunction, and pain until purity culture is rejected and replaced with a new ideology rooted in Christ—one that celebrates the bodies God gave women and men, and delights in the beautiful gift of mutual and committed sexual intimacy and sexuality.